Muskogee, Oklahoma, who dropped out of school at the age of fourteen to
join Ellis Ezell’s outfit and work local the club circuit.
In 1942, he
moved to L.A. but it turned out to be a short stop-over, as he was soon on
tour with Chico Marx’s band.
His guitar stylings translated well to the
recording studio, and in 1943 he laid down his first tracks with Chico
Marx. He also did a stint with
Les Brown, performing live in Miami, Florida, and Hollywood,
California. Some of these
performances are available on vinyl.
In 1944, he hooked up with Charlie Barnet’s band and they had
a big hit with “Skyliner”.
moonlighted with Artie Shaw’s band, recording some tracks later that
autumn. Then, he hit the big
screen in one of the first music videos, the Oscar-nominated short film, Jammin’ the Blues. In 1945, he made the cut on Artie
Shaw’s short list and worked with The Gramercy Five. Barney was the guitarist du jour, splitting
time between the orchestras of Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, and Artie
Shaw. He appears on 70+ Artie
Shaw recordings in 1945 and 1946 alone.
In 1946, he
hooked up with Benny Goodman, and they performed live and recorded through
1947. Then he band-hopped to
Charlie Parker’s band, recording tunes for the album, Relaxin’ at Camarillo. He also recorded the LP, From Dixieland to Bop, with Benny
Carter and Lucky Thompson. The
next few years were spent largely in the recording studio, accompanying Billy
May and Mel Torme on the Capitol label.
From 1947 to
1960, he was consistently ranked as the #1 axe-man in polls conducted by
the magazines, Down Beat, Esquire and Playboy.
Appropriately enough, in the ‘50s he appeared on a string of
LPs called The Poll Winners with
Ray Brown and Shelly Manne. He also recorded an album under his
own name, simply titled, Kessel Plays
In 1951, he
re-united with Ray Brown as a member of The Oscar Peterson Trio. The trio traveled the world, on a
14-country international tour in 1952.
In 1953, Barney was replaced by Herb Ellis. He went on to record more albums
brandishing his own name for the Contemporary label. Sonny Rollins employed his services
in the late 1950s on a series of recordings, such as “How High the
Moon”, which is available on the boxed set, The Freelance Years.
era, with its big live performances and big recordings, was over. As music (and session work) changed,
Kessel adapted. He appeared on several soundtracks
and genre-hopped on recording sessions with The Beach Boys, Sam Cooke,
Liberace, Dean Martin, The Monkees, Elvis
Presley, Frank Sinatra and Phil Spector. The cadre of musicians with whom he
traveled from studio to studio obtained the moniker, The Wrecking Crew, and
included fellow guitarist, Glen Campbell.
In 1955 and
1956, he arranged and performed with Julie London on Julie is Her Name, using only a bass and guitar, complementing
London’s intimate sound.
Their most famous recording together was “Cry Me a
River”. In the
‘60s, he continued to be the go-to guy for artists such as Errol
Garner, Lou Rawls, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. George Harrison said that Barney was
the best guitarist… ever.
unveiled a Barney Kessel guitar in 1961 and manufactured
them steadily through 1973. The
guitarist turned author in 1967, penning The Guitar: A Tutor,
a music instruction book. He
was also a regular contributor to the magazine, Guitar Player.
through 1970, he was owner-operator of Barney Kessel’s
Music World in Hollywood. His
all-star clientele included Eric Clapton, George Harrison and John
Lennon. It did not keep him off
the road, however: In 1968, he
joined George Wein’s Newport All-Stars for
a European tour.
‘70s, he developed a presentation called “The Effective
Guitarist” and conducted the seminar overseas and in the States. He became a member of The Great
Guitars, with Charlie Byrd and Herb Ellis, in 1973, and they stayed
together through the 1980s. Kessel kept a foot in the door of education, doing some
teaching at Central State University in Oklahoma.
In 1992, he
suffered a stroke, and it ended his career. Nine years later, an even harsher
verdict: He was diagnosed with
cancer that was deemed inoperable.
It claimed his life on 6th May 2004 at his residence in
San Diego, California. Just Jazz Guitar dedicated their
September 1997 issue to him.
He has been
immortalized in the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame and The Oklahoma Music
Hall of Fame.